FLUTO SHINZAWA | ON HOCKEY
matthew j. lee/globe staff
On Monday, Charlie McAvoy felt sturdy enough to shuffle onto the TD Garden ice, albeit in flip-flops, to join his Bruins teammates for the annual team picture. The brace on his left knee, however, indicated that he would not be staying on the ice for practice.
Whatever damage the rookie defenseman suffered on his first and only shift of Saturday’s 2-1 overtime win over Montreal was serious enough to make him unavailable for Tuesday’s game against Detroit. How much more time McAvoy will miss is unknown. The Bruins have 19 regular-season games remaining.
“This is new. We missed him for a pocket earlier this year, and we survived it,” coach Bruce Cassidy said of McAvoy’s four-game absence (3-1-0) following an ablation in January to treat an abnormal heart rhythm. “We’ll see what happens going forward with him and how extensive his injury will be. Until we know that, it’s hard to get anxious.”
The Bruins would not enjoy it, but they could live without McAvoy for some or all of the next 19 games. They are likely to finish in second or third place in the Atlantic Division. They would play Toronto in the first round. In the NHL, home ice for the playoffs is preferable but not required.
Things will get sour if McAvoy’s absence hits the 20-game mark. The do-it-all defenseman is a critical cog in the Bruins’ playoff machine, one that could already be compromised if Patrice Bergeron’s broken right foot does not heal in a timely manner.
The Bruins are averaging 3.27 goals per game, fourth-most in the league, partly because of how efficiently McAvoy transports the puck from bad areas in his own zone to good spots around opposing nets.
To this point, McAvoy has been among the league’s sharpest rookies. He has 7 goals and 25 assists in 59 games. He is averaging 22:06 of ice time per game, most of any NHL rookie and second to Zdeno Chara on the Bruins. His 32 points are tops among all first-year defensemen.
The Bruins do not have a right-shot defenseman who can replicate McAvoy’s skills. Brandon Carlo will take McAvoy’s spot on Chara’s right side, but Carlo is having a down year after a very good rookie season.
Carlo is a stay-at-homer whose assets do not include most of those that make McAvoy special: the ability to skate the puck out of trouble, whip it onto a teammate’s blade on the fly, or handle it in dangerous situations in the offensive zone.
Carlo also does not have McAvoy’s bite. On March 1, after Patric Hornqvist broke open McAvoy’s nose with a shoulder-to-face thump, the rookie went right back at the Pittsburgh widebody later in the game. Such meanness is not part of Carlo’s personality.
Nick Holden is best equipped to deliver some of McAvoy’s puck-moving and offensive-minded presence. The ex-Ranger has adjusted well to his new lineup in his two appearances. In his Bruins debut, Holden played 20:25 in an 8-4 pasting of the Penguins. As the point man on the No. 2 power-play unit, Holden flipped a puck to David Krejci through traffic to set up the center’s second of three goals.
One game later, Holden played 21:52. He was McAvoy’s full-time replacement on the second man-up group. Holden landed six shots on Montreal goalie Antti Niemi. He had plans to put one more puck on goal, but changed his mind when he identified Jake DeBrusk as a net-front threat on a third-period power play. The defenseman altered his windup and slapped a pass in DeBrusk’s direction instead. DeBrusk redirected Holden’s shot-pass past Niemi for the game-tying goal.
“I got the pass and I was going to hit it at the net,” Holden said. “Their D came out. I don’t know if I saw Jake’s stick, but I saw his body around there. So I just put it in the middle. He did a great job of putting his stick where it needed to be and getting the puck.”
The Bruins acquired Holden as left-side depth to complement Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk behind Chara. Holden, however, is comfortable playing the right side. His Broadway assignments included being Ryan McDonagh’s right-side man on the Rangers’ top pair. He played his off side Saturday next to Krug. It’s where Holden’s mobility, defensive awareness, and ability to sneak on net through traffic could provide some of the right-side characteristics they are now missing because of McAvoy’s injury.
But like most coaches, Cassidy likes to build his defense with three left-right combinations. During Monday’s practice, Holden skated mostly on Adam McQuaid’s left side. Cassidy identified the transition from defense to offense where strong-side stick placement is most critical.
Part of the Bruins’ success in possessing the puck and limiting opposing chances is how crisply they’ve turned the page from defense to offense. Even if Holden is comfortable leaving the defensive zone on his weak side, he’s still going to be a hair slower than a right-shot defenseman because of how he receives pucks — either on his backhand or slightly behind him on his forehand.
“Neutral-zone transition, D-to-D plays where your sticks are the same,” Cassidy said. “Normally you’re passing to a partner with his stick out in front. If you’re on your off side, then you’re catching it on your backhand and you can’t get going as quick up ice. So your target becomes behind you. There is a little getting used to that. Definitely the transition part in the neutral zone if you want to be quick.
“Now, we’ve tried to discourage a lot of D-to-D anyway. But you’re still going to have it. It’s inevitable you’re going to have to make some of those. We just don’t want it to be the first look.”
The Bruins are in good shape to absorb McAvoy’s absence. Just not one that stretches into April.
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